Of Menstruators and Manhole Covers

feminine productsFeminists of a certain age may recall debates about changing sexist language, and the ways feminists were once mocked for insisting on replacing sex-specific terms such as policeman with police officer, fireman with firefighter, stewardess with flight attendant and the so-called generic pronouns he and him with he or she, him or her or they and their. When I tell you that students in my Cultural Studies class last fall asked why Althusser only wrote about men, it’s easy to think those battles have been won. But only about half of the 50 U.S. states have changed their official government documents to use gender-neutral language.

The fact that today’s young people do not understand the generic use of man is just one indicator of the power of language. It matters which words we use to name and describe our world; language both reflects and shapes the way we see the world and our place in it. As a feminist scholar of media and women’s health and sexuality issues, I’ve become increasingly mindful of how labels can be inclusive or exclusive. Anyone who cares about public health usually tries to use the most inclusive labels possible. That’s why blood banks ask if you’ve had sex with men who have sex with men, for example, instead of asking if you’re gay.

Much of my published research deals with media representations of menstruation, so it caught my eye last month when a prominent women’s studies professor posted the following remark on a very active women’s studies mailing list:

There is something a bit problematic going on in menstruation politics. It seems we are required, for sake of politeness to male-bodied transgenders, to pretend that men menstruate too.

She then quoted a paragraph from a book review that referred to radical menstruation and used the term menstruators rather than women or women who menstruate. (Full disclosure: I recognized immediately that the book had to be New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation by my good friend Chris Bobel, a brilliant ethnographic study of feminist activism around menstruation.)

I cite this example without naming the professor or the list because I am neither interested in calling out an individual nor shaming a group. I cite it because I want to talk about why it is important to write of menstruators, not merely a matter of politeness to transmen. (It should go without saying that politeness to transmen is also important.)

Menstruation exists at the crossroads of sex and gender, as Chris wrote in New Blood. It is a biological function, but like every other biological function its meanings are cultural, and the biology cannot be separated from the culture. The activists Chris interviewed emphasized two important biological facts often overlooked in our cultural interpretations of menstruation:

  1. Not all women menstruate.
  2. Not only women menstruate.

Some women don’t menstruate because of diseases, cancers, surgeries, pregnancy (although they may still bleed) or menopause. Other women don’t menstruate because they don’t have functioning uteruses, fallopian tubes or vaginas; maybe they were born that way or maybe they are transwomen. And yes, there are some people who don’t identify as women who do menstruate. Some of them are transmen. Some of them are intersex. Some may have fully functioning uteruses, ovaries and vaginas but may identify as genderqueer, transgender, third gender or something else entirely. They are menstruators, but they are not women.

Calling them menstruators is just like changing other biased language. It helps us tell the truth about our lives, and challenge both gender essentialism and biological determinism. It reminds us that our bodies do not determine our identities, and that we are so much more than merely bodies. Some of us are people who happen to menstruate, some of the time. Using menstruators instead of women also helps make vital health information available to everyone who needs it—not just women.

In Washington, the state where I live, the legislature just unanimously approved a bill that is the fifth and final installment of a multi-year effort to replace male-dominated language from the state code with gender-neutral language. Under the new code, penmanship will become handwriting, freshmen will be first-year students and watchmen will become security guards.

But they still cannot find a gender-neutral term for manhole cover. In a world where we can find a gender-neutral name for men who menstruate, they’re just not trying hard enough.

Comments

  1. “Tunnel access cover”
    “Sewer access cover”
    “Utilities access cover”

    • Liz, that probably took you all of 30 seconds to think of and type? Perhaps faster since almost anyone is a better typist than me? Brilliant Liz! And yes they are not thinking hard enough.

  2. thank you for this. discussions around menstruation seem to bring out trans* hate more than anything, and as someone who has struggled with menstruation because of medical issues that have altered my menstruation as well as gender struggles, it hurts a lot. i’m thrilled to see people talking about this.

  3. Illuminating article. Thank you for sharing. I also want to add another example of woman who typically do not bleed. Certain types of birth control, like an IUD, can decrease menstruation and can prevent a woman from bleeding all together. Recently, I started using and IUD and have found myself questioning my womanhood, and what it means to be a woman who doesn’t bleed and whose fertile? It’s been interesting to notice my conditioning and my own biased beliefs around gender. I appreciate this article, and the power of language, and how we can change language to empower all of us. Thanks for neutralizing menstruation and contributing to my self-inquiary process.

    • I also have an IUD and thus have ceased to menstruate (as is fairly common among IUD users). Honestly, I don’t feel any less of a woman, but rather it feels like a superpower. No more cramps, pads, cups, stained underwear, etc. In my opinion, it’s awesome, because I have complete control over my fertility and some if its hallmarks this way. However, I have to note that I don’t feel that menstruation makes me more or less feminine; I got my period at age 10 and I recall at that time I still very much felt like a little girl. I personally connect my femininity/womanhood to my secondary sexual characteristics, my choice of gender presentation, and my sexual relationships (at times). As such, I completely agree with this article since each individual decides for themselves what defines their gender and/or sex and our language should reflect this.

  4. Anywavewilldo says:

    most women worldwide end up in the sex class because of our presumed biology. Is it really necessary to decenter nontrans*/ cisexed women from the discourse of menstruation and childbearing?
    All women deal with erasure of our experiences through nonprogresive gender clouding “Hi guys, let’s talk about people”

    I realise certain contexts such as healthcare will require maximum inclusion language but I do not think this is true of wider political activism in all places and all times. Being assigned female at birth has drastic material impact on our life chances. We will not all grow up to be women, but the vast majority of us will. Even if we cannot menstruate or bear children, or choose not to, our life maps reamain clearly marked by presumed biological function that has been socially encoded. Trans* women too become marked by this presumed ‘biologically derived womaness’. I don’t think it is progressing women’s liberation to dissuade women, trans* or cisexed, from using a collective identity to talk about menstruation or childbearing .

  5. I am so disturbed by this article, as a feminist, I am quite baffled. Have you any idea of the history of the “scientific” beliefs and the shame and disgust around menstruation and female bodies?

    This is backlash 2.0. Unbelievable.

    We’re not walking wombs who are ‘MENSTRUATORS’ – incredibly insulting.

  6. Shall “incubator” be the new “patriarchal PC” term for pregnant women, too?

  7. Thank you, Ms., for continuing to open my eyes and expand my feminism. It is greatly appreciated.

  8. What a fantastic piece by and referencing a book by two brilliant mentors of mine. Menstruators and those who use the word menstruator rock!

    Also: I guess streetcircle could be confused with traffic circle, but I may call them that from now on instead.

    PS Good work, Washington State!

  9. Also – 80% of biological women will use the pill at some point in their lives. Something like one hundred million biological women are currently using the pill. None of them are menstruating either.

    • While I was on the Pill I most definitely still menstruated, month in and month out, for years, and there’s nothing unusual about that. Only some forms of hormonal contraception stop menstruation, not all of them.

      • you may well have bled month in, month out, but it wasn’t menstruation, the bleeding on the pill (meaning the combined pill) is actually breakthrough, or withdrawal bleeding not actual menstruation.

  10. Rosita Libre de Marulanda says:

    Can we find a more wimmin-friendly word for men-struation?

    It is interesting that feminism seeks gender neutrality.
    We came up with words like androgyny
    We wrote stories like The Child Named “X”
    We raised children sans gender roles.
    We protested beauty pagents.
    What feminist was who wrote, “I am as common as a common loaf of bread”?

    Transgerderism, on the other hand, exploits gender
    It’s unapologetic about wanting to be the other gender
    Often confusing and blurring the difference between sex and gender, transgender people often go through excrutiatingly painful and expensive operations

    Sex is about the genitals you naturally have (i.e., no plastic surgery)
    Gender is the social construct that culture has spun around your sex, i.e., the pink/blue stuff, the required behavioral markers, the gender privilege and oppression, etc.
    Transgender people love beauty contests and pageants and and glamour and courts.

    Just saying.

    Two political movements diametrically opposed.

    • I am so against plastic surgery. Always. No one should have to hate their body so much that they want to change it. Interesting comment to this blog post. I think if we didn’t define gender with biology we wouldn’t have transgendered people who want a different anatomy. People would just be what they want and love their bodies. I watched this Oprah episode with this trans gendered women (bio male) who was asked if she wanted her penis removed and she said no, her penis is a part of her and she has no desire to remove it but chooses to live life as a women. I thought that was very powerful. I understand that transgendered people have a right to hate their biological gendered body parts but they shouldn’t have to hate that part of them. It really sucks.

      • It is always entertaining to watch clueless cis people make definite statements about what trans people do and why we have to do what we do. You both have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

    • “Two political movements diametrically opposed.”

      Thank you, Rosita Libre de Marulanda! I can remember back when Ms. was feminist … and about *women* too! I don’t understand how men (even men in makeup) coopted feminism, but thank you for having the courage to point it out.

  11. I always say “street hole cover.”

  12. John Fonner says:

    This is a valuable post. While I am not a menstruator, I recognize that the adage telling us to, “Say what you mean and mean what you say,” is often forgotten or ignored, especially over changes in our language driven by cultural shifts. In my experience, cultural language changes are resisted most by those that are most threatened by the change or most removed from the negative aspects of the language as it is used in the status quo.

    However, as a civil engineer, I find it easy to suggest “sewer lid,” but it is more of a challenge to rename the “manhole” beneath it. I doubt that “Sewer junction and access structure,” despite it’s clarity, will ever be recognized as a significant advancement in our cultural language and is unlikely to gain traction among the people responsible for treating our waste.

    My point is this, those with the most ownership, passion or at stake in the evolution of specific aspects of our language should be entitled to claim the terms that they are most satisfied with. I admire those who are willing to stake their claim on change. It’s hard, often disappointing, work.

  13. As for a gender-neutral name for a man-hole cover, there already is one – the actual proper designation used by many engineers: Service Access Cover (SAC).

  14. FeistyAmazon says:

    RIGHT ‘men who menstruate’. Is that like ‘men who have babies’? Why not erase the female sex and our female mysteries altogether? Maybe then we’ll be done with sex oppression. And ‘women’ can have penises, and use them against other women, and have.

  15. curiouserandcuriouser says:

    Only female human beings can menstruate. And men can’t become women.

  16. Transmen are female. Females are the class of humans that menstruate. It’s not “hateful” to state these facts.

    http://bugbrennan.com/2012/08/10/you-dont-know-dick/

    • I’d like to see some citations for your so-called “facts”. I’d also like to see your biology credentials as you seem to reference yourself rather than scientific literature.

      • Biologically, in most mammals, including humans, a male is defined by the presence of a Y chromosome. Barring defective chromosomes, you will not present as a male (i.e., have the external genitalia and secondary sex characteristics of a male) if you do not have a Y chromosome. If you have only one X chromosome (and no other X or Y chromosome), you will present as a female. If you have two X chromosomes you’ll present as female, and if you have two X chromosomes and a Y, you’ll present as male. These statements are pretty much indisputable, which makes them facts.

        You can alter external appearances and cultural roles, but you can’t alter chromosomes. So in that sense, you can’t ever truly be the other sex from a biological standpoint even if you undergo SRS. Thus, if you’re talking about biology, the author is correct in stating that not all women menstruate, but incorrect that not only women menstruate. People with Y chromosomes simply do not menstruate. Period. (Pun intended).

        That is indeed biological determinism, but it is only referring to matters of biology. That doesn’t mean that people who support that viewpoint aren’t sympathetic to the idea that trans people still face many challenges, nor that they shouldn’t be discriminated against (if being trans puts you at higher risk for breast cancer then you should certainly be eligible for exams to detect it). I think the problem here is that some people are using “female” and “woman” in the biological sense and others in the cultural sense.

        • butactually says:

          Actually, sometimes children are born with both sex organs (I think the stat is about 1/1000 actually), and a lack of certain hormones at a particular time in development can cause an xy individual to manifest as female (the “default” setting, so to speak).

        • There are actually several different ways of biologically defining sex and scientists only reduce sex to a single thing such as chromosomes, form of fertility, or visible characteristics in contexts where it is relevant. Claiming that chromosomal sex is the real definition of sex is political, not scientific.

  17. Thank you for an insightful article! Yes, gender essentialism and biological determinism is a large problem in modern society, as we also see clear evidence for in the comments. There are a lot of challenges for us trans people when facing the medical establishment as well as various public services.

    Like for instance do I get free check-ups for breast cancer? We have breast cancer in my family, and all cis women automatically get check-ups in my country. I’m at an increased risk too. It’s just one of many challenges with a society which assume distinct binary sexes, and gender.

  18. Robyn Messy Elliot says:

    Transmen are men. They have autonomy from external classification, no matter the shrill politics of external classifiers. Respecting their identity does NOT erase anything. Saying it does “erase” a different group is willfully disingenuous, vulgar, and becomes fascist in the endless reiteration by the gender-police.

  19. Biologically born males cannot menstruate but this does not prevent men who claim to be really female from claiming they do ‘menstruate.’ Women who claim they are really male are not male they are biologically born females but the trans activists are erasing biological women because biological men wish to become female whilst retaining their male power and male rights, which is why that male in a frock declared he would keep his penis.

    The fact some biologically born females do not menstruate does not erase biologically born females’ lived experiences but that fact is irrelevant because ‘the men in frocks’ can magically become women simply by saying they are! Cis women do not exist – that is another insulting term men have created to erase biological women’s lived experiences of living in a Male Supremacist System.

    Echoing this – men cannot become women. And women are not ‘menstruators’ another male created misogynistic term used to insult all biologically born females.

    So does this mean older women who no longer menstruate are not ‘real women?’ Apparently so because ‘menstruation’ supposedly defines ‘real women’ not their biological features. Intersex is not the same as men who claim they are females in a male body.

    Remember men claim ‘mankind’ is a descriptive term for humans so of course this means ‘mankind gives birth – oh but wait males can give birth – that is biologically born females who claim they are really males can give birth so that solves problem then of biologically born males not being able to give birth – because now they can!

  20. So men taking an interest in the blood mysteries. Last time they started cutting off the tips of their penises to see if they could generate the blood of life, so they didn’t need the women. It’s still happening today. Eunuchs often served as guardians in the temples of the Goddesses, although they were not considered priestesses. We nourish our Mother Earth with our moon blood.

    If men want to describe themselves as “menstruators”, I have no idea really what that means, and feel that if they want to say that about themselves that is their right, whether they identify more as male or female. The fact is they are male. It saddens me to see them longing so much to be what they are not. This does not feel like self-love to me. My point is call yourself what you like, and respect how I name myself. As woman. As she who bleeds but does not die. As daughter of the Great Mother, from whom all life comes and returns. We all start out as female, by the way… Name yourself as you please, and respect our naming of ourselves as well.

  21. Utopia Bold says:

    Men can not become women and women can not become men. Women and men differ on the chromosomal level, women having XX and men XY. Intersex people are a completely different category since they were born with characteristics that are not seen as completely male or female.

    The reason “men” can menstruate is that they are surgically altered women. In the same way, surgically altered men are not women just because they get an artificial hole made to resemble a vagina, which it isnt.

  22. Barbara Mor says:

    I agree with Angry Feminist, Rosita Libre d Marulanda, Hecuba, Cate, Feisty Amazon, Kimberly, Utopia Bold, Angry all other proud OldSchoolers who resist the colonization of the Female Body once again by males seeking power by way of being ‘more women than women’ — i.e. by denying biological femaleness in the newly coined name of
    ‘autonomy’ from external classification. No, what they want is to deny the history of the evolution of our species & the contribution of the female of that species to this evolution AS FEMALE. ‘Sexual identity’ is more than just a headtrip, & it is no accident that so many of the males-into-females whether via surgery or external dress &
    comportment, adopt the most flagrant stereotypes of ‘the female’ our centuries of patriarchal culture have produced. As Hecuba & others remind us: way back in prehistory men underwent extreme ceremonies to ‘make themselves female’, e.g. aboriginal subincision of the penis to make a wound that bleeds, self-castration of priests in service of a Goddess, the wearing of ‘breasts’ by shamans, all to invoke the powers of the female in service of their social roles as Men of Power. This was originally done in awe & respect of those female powers;
    now it seems done more as desperate & gaudy parody. And, lest we forget again: all those Holy Men of Abrahamic religion, Christian, Muslim & Jewish priests, mullah, & rabbis, wear long skirts in their official capacities. Most of all the Catholic Pope & all the ‘celibate virgin’ males attending him: red satin slippers, laces, skirts, jewelry & lavish display all over the place….in their roles as Men of Power who have usurped the Female Power in order to dominate the world of humans, & in the process make life on earth somewhat miserable for the REAL THING:
    actual females. Let people who don’t want to be the biological sex they appear to be, do what they want; this is their right, & to do otherwise would be unhealthy for them & for society. But DON’T usurp or neutralize or negate the definition of the human female into a narcissistic headtrip. Make your own sex! Rename it, like the manhole covers! Be creative: it can be done. The 3rd Sex, the 4th Sex, the Optional Sex…demand your legal rights to be recognized & respected for your choice. But millions of years of humanoid biological female creation of our world & our species journey in it should also be respected. We’ve endured a lot in & because of & for these specific bodies & their biological processes & attributes. This is not ‘essentialism’ it is planetary REALITY. And it is the story of the Female Sex thru time. It can’t just be erased, or snapped away, with a bitchy wave of a headtrippy hand. Excuse the stereotype, but it isn’t one I chose; feminism didn’t invent it, as those of us who were there still stubbornly recall.

  23. Monty P. Thon says:

    You can’t HAVE babies Stan. Where’s the fetus going to gestate? What are you going to do – put it in a box?!

    This is all symbolic of your struggles with reality……

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